America's Cup - September 2011

Crash and burn. Not a phrase usually associated with the venerable America’s Cup. But after Plymouth, the host venue of the second America’s Cup World Series, crash and burn is what we witnessed. Well, to be more accurate, crash and splash.

Multiple capsizes, and a few collisions too, the fleet racing in Plymouth was eventful to say the least. But is this what America’s Cup competition should be all about, or is this demeaning to its 160-year history? I have some sympathy for such an argument, but not much. For most of its history, the America’s Cup has been a battle between two very wealthy men, an ego-driven contest fought away from the public eye.

The 33rd America’s Cup was a throw-back to the old America’s Cup, with a modern twist. Contested in futuristic, supersized multihulls, the bizarre conclusion to the legal battle between Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison - which saw the BMW Oracle Racing trimaran beat the Alinghi catamaran 2-0 in an ice-cold Valencia in February 2010 - was a 21st century version of the latter-day contests in Newport, Rhode Island, which were fought out between those beautiful leviathans, the J Class yachts.

Having won an old-style America’s Cup, Ellison has given Russell Coutts free rein to take the Cup into a modern, commercial era. Does modernisation equate to progress? Not always, and it depends on your point of view. But to my eye, Coutts’s bold vision offers sailing an unprecedented opportunity to reach a mass audience like never before. Running an America’s Cup campaign has never been commercially viable. Cup teams have relied on private patronage, much more so than corporate sponsorship. Coutts is attempting to change the model, using cutting-edge live TV as the bait with which to lure sponsors.

On the first Sunday of the 10 day event in Plymouth, the 40-minute fleet race started just a few minutes after the Formula One Grand Prix in Monza had begun. I had time to watch the first lap, and with a multiple pile-up at the first corner, it looked set to be a thriller. A few of the journalists in the press centre in Plymouth had the F1 coverage running on their laptops, with the expectation of watching the motor racing while keeping an eye on the sailing being broadcast on the media centre monitors.

Once the racing got underway, however, I don’t think anyone was paying much attention to the Formula One. The reaching start - with nine wing-masted multihulls launching off the line side by side - is a spectacle to rival the start of a grand prix. And in a breeze, the uncertainty of the bear-away - who will nosedive, who will capsize? - rivals the first corner of Formula One for drama.

When the rudders come out of the water in a nosedive, one wonders what the sailors do to regain control of the catamaran. In fact it was a question I put to Iain Percy, the British double Olympic Champion who was racing with Artemis Racing for the first time: “God!” was his one-word reply.

On numerous occasions we saw the catamaran crews throwing themselves at God’s mercy, although amazingly the bows would plunge beneath the surface and resurface with the boat still upright and intact. Eventually though, God decided enough was enough, and we saw three boats capsize during the course of Sunday’s race - first Aleph, the French team doing their noseplant right in front of the crowd looking down from Plymouth Hoe, then Team Korea during a bear-away at the windward mark, and then Green Comm Racing. The Spanish team fell over just a few metres from the finish, but unlike Team Korea who managed to get upright with the help of their support rib, Green Comm were unable to complete the race.

The crowds in Plymouth cheered the teams as they raced around the course, and particularly on the 500-metre speed trials which took place just metres from the shore. Some had driven quite a distance to watch the racing, and the weekend crowds seemed prepared to stand and watch even in the rain. Over the 10 days that the event was in Plymouth, the organisers claim an estimated 115,000 spectators on Plymouth Hoe.

Even when the wind wasn’t blowing more softly during the match racing mid-week, the TV footage was still very compelling, although I’m aware that I’m watching as a paid-up sailing nut. We didn’t get the thrills and spills, but the unpredictability and multiple lead changes were still there. Will this be enough to attract a lay audience? I have my doubts. When Formula One is playing on TV, I’ll watch it when it’s raining and cars are sliding off the track. But when the cars are racing around in a procession, I’m not enough of a motor head to watch a race all the way through.

I suspect the same is true of sailing. People watch if boats are crashing and capsizing, but educating a TV audience in the more subtle, tactical side of the game is going to be harder. Already the organisers are considering adding an extension to the top of the already very powerful wing rig, to provided additional horsepower for light wind venues such as Venice next year. The bigger rig would have been a useful add-on for San Diego, but that modification won’t arrive in time for the event which starts on 12 November. After the thrills and spills which captivated a Plymouth audience, it will be interesting to see how the gentler breezes of San Diego work out.




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